The communis opinio of historians is that early modern, or precolonial, states in Southeast Asia tended to lead precarious existences. The states were volatile in the sense that the size of individual states changed quickly, a ruler forced by circumstances moved his state capital, the death of a ruler was followed by a dynastic struggle, or a local subordinate head either ignored or took over the central state power; in short, states went through short cycles of rise and decline. Perhaps nobody has helped establish this opinion more than Clifford Geertz (1980) with his powerful metaphor of the “theatre state.” Many scholars have preceded and followed him in their assessment of the shakiness of the state (see, for example, Andaya 1992, 419; Bentley 1986, 292; Bronson 1977, 51; Hagesteijn 1986, 106; Milner 1982, 7; Nagtegaal 1996, 35, 51; Reid 1993, 202; Ricklefs 1991, 17; Schulte Nordholt 1996, 143–48). The instability itself was an enduring phenomenon. Most polities existed in a state of flux, oscillating between integration and disintegration, a phenomenon which was first analyzed for mainland Southeast Asia by Edmund Leach (1954) in his seminal work on the Kachin chiefdoms. This alternation of state formation and the breaking up of kingdoms has been called the “ebb and flow of power” and the “rhythm” of Malay history (Andaya and Andaya 1982, 35). In this article, I will probe into the causes of the volatility of the Southeast Asian states, using material from Sumatra to make my case.

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